Research tells ways to stay motivated at work

28 Apr 2023

Most employees who work a traditional workweek tend to plan their activities based on the days of the week. They arrive at work on Monday mornings all charged up, but as the week progresses, they may get worn out and become less efficient.

A study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, finds that people’s motivational control and performance decline over the workweek. However, there is an important personality trait that can make a difference, particularly in demanding jobs.

Motivation and performance relate to the days of the week

“For most of us employees, we may feel that our daily lives are cyclical. We work from Monday to Friday and run errands or rest during the weekends. The days of the week serve as a temporal map by which we plan our lives. These cyclical behaviours become ‘entrainment’, which occurs when we synchronise our activities with the pattern and rhythm of social and institutional norms,” says Dr Siting Wang, Assistant Professor of the Department of Management, Marketing and Information Systems, who co-led the research.

In the study, Dr Wang and her collaborators looked at how entrainment affects people’s motivation and performance at work, and whether there are ways to help employees break free of such a process. The researchers analysed the survey data collected from full-time employees at a medical device sales organisation in China across a typical five-day workweek, and found that both the employees’ motivational control and job performance waned over the workweek. Since employees perceive that they are less likely to finish all their work, they gradually gravitate towards performing simpler tasks as the end of the week approaches.

“Our research indicates that employees’ motivational control and performance are cyclical. In that case, organisations can provide training and interventions that can level out this downward trajectory across the workweek in order to maximise employees’ performance,” says Dr Wang. For example, companies can re-arrange the order of their work and social activities to change or disrupt weekly patterns and keep employees engaged throughout the workweek.

Bringing mindfulness to work

However, there are exceptions to the rule – not all employees are universally affected by the days of the week. The study showed that trait-based mindfulness, which refers to a person’s capacity to stay focused on the present moment, helps counteract the influence of entrainment. Employees with higher levels of mindfulness are likely to be more conscious of their activities and act with purpose.

And yet, the research found that trait-based mindfulness is only relevant when the job is highly demanding and requires constant focus and effort across the workweek. People with a higher level of trait-based mindfulness and job demands showed more consistent motivational control at work. Dr Wang says: “While there has been a great deal of interest in incorporating mindfulness practices into the workplace, our findings suggest that the impact of mindfulness may be limited in jobs with simple tasks and low workload. Organisations should carefully consider whether focusing on mindfulness is a worthwhile investment.”

The research findings offer insights into motivational control research and contribute to the discussions regarding the complex relationship between mindfulness and motivation-performance. Employers may use assessment of trait-based mindfulness to screen job candidates or provide mindfulness training to employees who are assigned to demanding tasks.

And what can employees do to increase their productivity? “For those with high job demands, they can improve their ability to stay focused over time. They may make weekly task lists, practise meditation before work or take part in mindfulness-based training,” says Dr Wang.

She suggests those with less challenging jobs should change their weekly patterns to resist the entrainment cycle. By changing routine activities which are set for specific days throughout the week to alternative days, people can avoid becoming bogged down by entrainment, ensuring that they can be productive and make the most of every day.